The civil war that raged from 2011 caused at least 470,000 deaths and gave rise to 7.6 internally displaced people and over 5 million refugees, many of them in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Over a million Christians have fled the country or are internally displaced as a result of the civil war, and many others have been raped, tortured, kidnapped for ransom and killed.
The civil war grew out of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movement. Syrians began to protest against President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party government and to demand the release of political prisoners, and in March 2011 troops were ordered to fire on protestors. The ensuing unrest led to the development of an armed opposition that grew into a coalition of rebels trying to overthrow the government, including foreign Muslim extremists who flooded into Syria to join the fight.
The majority of Syria’s Muslim population is Sunni, but President Assad and his supporters are Alawites, members of a Shi’ite sect that makes up only 12% of Syria’s population. Alawites are influential in the army and government.
Christians in Syria
The Syrian church dates back to New Testament times. Before the civil war, Syria was one of the easiest places in the Arab world to be a Christian and while there was some discrimination (for instance in connection with housing and employment) and some emigration, Syrian Christians enjoyed relative freedom and stability, were prosperous, had good relations with Muslims and were respected in society. They were allowed to worship and practise their faith without much official interference, and although meetings were monitored, Christian literature was freely available. The Christian population was concentrated in cities, especially Damascus, and consisted mainly of Orthodox and Catholic Christians, but there was also a small Protestant church.
During the civil war, Christians were particularly affected in areas under the control of extremist Islamists who viewed them as an obstacle to a Sharia-governed country. In these areas, widespread violence included attacks on Christians, their property and church buildings. Some historic churches were demolished or turned into Islamic centres and militants kidnapped several Christian leaders for political purposes or financial gain. Some Christians who were killed in the civil war were martyred for their faith. The Christian quarter of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, was bombarded for months on end and the Christian population of the city dropped from 250,000 to fewer than 40,000.
The UN estimates that of the 1.8 million Christians living in Syria before the war only 600,000 – 900,000 remain. Almost the entire Christian population of some cities has fled. The Christian population of Homs, a city particularly badly affected by the war, declined from at least 60,000 to fewer than 1,000. Aleppo, on the front line of fighting between the government, rebel forces and Islamic State for much of the war, had one of the largest pre-war Christian populations in Syria, but it dropped from 250,000 to fewer than 40,000 Christians.
In August 2015, Islamic State militants captured Qaratayn in Homs Governorate, took over two hundred Christians hostage and murdered 21 of the three hundred Christians trapped in the city. Some hostages were taken to Raqqa in northern Syria, Islamic State’s de facto capital; many were ransomed by their families. The ruined city of Qaratayn was retaken by Russian-backed Syrian forces in April 2016 and Raqqa was retaken in November 2017, as Islamic State militants were pushed out of the large swathes of territory they had taken in Iraq and Syria. Some of the terrorists reportedly dispersed into the Syrian countryside, while others are believed to have escaped into Turkey.
On 23 March 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces declared territorial defeat of Islamic State after taking the terrorists’ last piece of territory in the Middle East, the town of Baghouz near the Iraqi border. Thousands of captives remain missing, however, and pockets of IS fighters remain a threat throughout Syria and Iraq. The caliphate leaves a legacy of instability and destruction, with Syrians facing food shortages, lack of employment and ruined infrastructure.
With conditions in Syria so difficult and the future uncertain, refugees are hesitant to return. Many of them have ended up living in squalid and dangerous conditions, often trafficked by brutal, extortionist smugglers. Church leaders in Lebanon and Turkey have been overwhelmed by the numbers of Christian refugees looking for food and shelter, while Christians in official refugee camps face violence from extremist Muslims in the camps.
Two bishops kidnapped on 22 April 2013 in the village of Kfar Dael in northwestern Syria are still missing. Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox bishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox bishop Boulos Yaziji were on a mission to negotiate the release of two priests abducted on 9 February (Michel Kayyal of the Armenian Catholic church and Mahar Mahfouz of the Greek Orthodox church) when their car was intercepted and their driver was shot dead. The identity of the kidnappers has never been established.
Why were Christians targeted?
Christians were targeted by Islamist opposition factions that wanted Syria to become a Sunni Muslim state, notably Jabhat Fatah al Sham, the al-Qaeda offshoot previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front. Such extremists adopted the slogan “Alawites to the tomb and Christians to Beirut”.
Christians were widely believed by the opposition to be supporters of President Assad, since they enjoyed relative freedom and security under the rule of the secular Baath party (which many Christians joined). The Baath party and other secular parties suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafists. The belief that Christians were pro-government meant they were very vulnerable in areas controlled by opposition groups. Furthermore, many radical fundamentalists come from poor rural communities and urban slums and targeted Christians because of their perceived prosperity.
(Barnabas Fund/BBC/Christian Post/Irish Times/Middle East Concern/Morning Star News/Open Doors/Operation World/Reuters/Tear Fund/UN/Voice of the Martyrs Canada/World Watch List/World Watch Monitor)
Church in Chains in Action
During the civil war period, Church in Chains supported a number of aid projects working with partner organisations including Barnabas Fund (providing aid to displaced Christians within the country), Asia Link (providing for the needs of Syrian Christian refugees in neighbouring countries) and Team Hope (supporting a Christian doctor ministering in Aleppo). Over €26,000 was distributed during the years 2013-2017.
Christian leaders in northern Syria are very concerned about their communities’ vulnerability following the launch of Turkey’s incursion on 9 October.
A new report estimates that 50-80% of the Christian populations of Iraq and Syria have emigrated since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
A group of 21 TDs and Senators have called on the Irish Government to recognise as genocide what is being perpetrated by ISIS against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria.
On 22 February, Islamic State released a final group of 43 Assyrian Christian hostages from the Hassaka group abducted in February 2015.
Earlier today (29 January), another group of 16 Christian hostages was freed by Islamic State militants who had been holding them captive since February 2015.
The latest group of released hostages is comprised mainly of women and children and includes four mothers and their children. As with previous releases, the freed hostages were met by Bishop of Syria Mar Afram Athneil who is Chairman of the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation (ACERO).